10/23/06

Outside Whale

Outside The Whale
Naeem Mohaiemen talks to Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam's work as a media activist and director of the award-winning Drik Picture Library (drik.net) inspired many Bengalis to blend cultural production with political work. Shahidul deliberately locates his work squarely inside Bangladesh, often defiantly placing himself against local stakeholders such as government ministries, the US Embassy, and the World Bank. At times, he has paid a price for his solitary defiance: DRIK’s phone lines have been cut, exhibitions cancelled, and during anti-government demonstrations in 1996, Shahidul was stabbed by unknown assailants. DRIK’s journey over the past decade highlights the relative privilege of those who live between words, within easy reach of a diasporic space of safety.

Besides Drik, Shahidul set up the Bangladesh Photographic Institute, Pathshala (South Asian Institute of Photography) and Chobi Mela (Festival of Photography in Asia). His work has shown in MOMA, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts, the Royal Albert Hall and Kuala Lumpur National Art Gallery.

Filmmaker and media artist Naeem Mohaiemen created Visible Collective (disappearedinamerica.org), which works on art interventions on hyphenated identities, loyalty tests and security panic. Project excerpts have shown as installations or lectures, including the 2006 Whitney Biennial (Wrong Gallery).

Naeem: In the 1980s, you left London to move back to Dhaka and start DRIK. In your writing, you've talked about the need to locate media work outside the dominant narrative spaces. Both you and your partner (anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed) also consciously made a decision to conduct all your work in the Bengali (Bangla) language -- even in the difficult case of transliterated e-mail.

Shahidul: I did not leave England. I returned to Bangladesh, where I was always going to be. The biggest need was to change the way majority world countries were portrayed. I was working with a London-based studio, and the only pictures they ever seemed to be interested in were pictures of disaster or poverty. So being based in Dhaka was a fairly automatic decision.

My partner Rahnuma and I were involved in the anti-military junta agitations at that time, so I began documenting that movement. It was a much more ‘lived’ experience than I had felt before. The move towards speaking Bangla and the introduction of new media were, in combination, a mechanism aimed at reducing the digital divide. Without international lines, faxes or money to make expensive calls, we needed to find other ways to communicate. So setting up Bangladesh’s first email network was an obvious choice.

The introduction of written Bangla in roman text dramatically changed the demographics of participants in our internet network, which brought home the centrality of the vernacular, even in urban, literate circles. Since then we’ve brought out several books and a photography magazine in Bangla. Later we developed a Bangla font that could be used on the Net, which we used in the online magazine I was publishing, so we could reverse the information flow.

Naeem: I'm thinking of the imagine.art.after project, curated by Breda Beban, which brought together artists who left home and now live in London, and others who remained in the "country of their birth" (a misnomer anyway -- I don't know where I fit since I was born in London, grew up in Tripoli and Dhaka, and work in New York and Dhaka). This brings to mind all the differences in privilege, access, interests, methodology, and networks that are created when artists migrate. Bangladesh has a different trajectory from the exile dynamics in locales like Lebanon, Iran or Sri Lanka, but at times we've had equally volatile eruptions, especially the turbulent 70s with coups, counter-coups, and dirty-wars. Those in exile/in diasporadic conditions may choose to locate in the "belly of the beast" to challenge from inside. But for this to work, diaspora cultural producers need a theoretical and practical framework for work exchanges between those who "stayed" and those who "left".

Shahidul: Leaving aside my overseas education, I was conscious of the fact that I was highly privileged in Bangladesh, by the fact that I had the opportunity to study and did not have to worry about tomorrow’s meal. We had all used the resources of this country for our education, but wealthier countries were reaping the benefits of that training. Through us, Bangladesh was effectively subsidizing the west.

If enabling social change is measured, it is in Bangladesh that one can get the maximum returns for one’s efforts. This works at a personal and emotional level, and also if you evaluate how we can change our lives. But, there are obvious risks of working in Bangladesh, particularly for journalists for whom this is said to be the most dangerous country after Iraq [according to the Committee To Protect Journalists].

Naeem: Well, I know that when I tried to show a rough cut of Muslims or Heretics: My Camera Can Lie in Dhaka, the film was refused until you used your networks. I understood then that the risk of recrimination from the Islamists was borne by DRIK. The fact that I work in New York provided a strange kind of insulation. This is what made me think of the overlapping and divergent paths of diaspora versus "back home". What do these terms even mean when many have dual passports, conflicting loyalties, and multiple spaces of work?

Shahidul: Being overseas allows one to work with greater impunity and substantially lower risks, and take advantage of greater earning potential. Technological benefits, as well as greater mobility, and the ability to network gives advantages that working here does not allow. Traveling on a Bangladeshi passport also makes a lot of my international work quite difficult (I was off-loaded from flights twice after 9/11). I see clearly different roles for those who work within and those outside. Moral judgment and self righteousness shouldn’t enter either sphere.

You live in a country which has bombed 22 nations since World War II, and is clearly responsible for more civilian deaths in recent history than any other nation. To be a taxpayer and therefore an accomplice to the most brutal nation on earth, does require a lot of redemption! Having said that, to pay the taxes and utilize the benefits, to be able to turn the machinery in one’s favour and to actively subvert the normal course of the machinery may well be a strategically viable position, but it has to be carefully measured.

Naeem: You have a history of taking anti-authoritarian positions in your struggles inside Bangladesh, which involve a level of actualized danger. There were situations when you were covering the Ershad junta, and the collapse of the first rightist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regime, where you came under physical attack. From the early days of DRIK's work as an internet provider, the e-mail service as well as your phone lines came under constant, regular interference from government authorities. When DRIK sponsored the Muslims or Heretics screening, one of your employees received threatening phone calls. But I also note the recent Time magazine cover story "Bangladesh: Rescue Mission" carried a photograph of the Prime Minister, taken by you. How do we negotiate these interfaces with power?

Shahidul: Our anti-establishment position has been perceived (by governments) as pro-opposition, regardless of who is in power. Hopefully it also reinforces our credibility as being non-partisan, in the sense of party politics. When we put together the exhibition ‘The War We Forgot’ on Bangladesh's liberation war of 1971, the government asked us to remove the images which showed revenge killings by Bangalis against Urdu speakers. We replied by pulling the entire exhibition from the National Museum and holding it in Drik’s gallery instead. The government was left with egg on its face because visitors constantly asked why such a show was refused by the National Museum. Our credibility and network (local & international) dissuades governments from bothering us unless we seriously become a threat. It’s gauging that distance which is critical. One needs to feel the intensity of the heat without getting too badly burnt.

Naeem: After Zana Briski and Ross Kaufmann won the 2005 Best Documentary Oscar for Born Into Brothels, there was some talk of a "missionary rescue" syndrome where western activists come in and do work in the Southern context, but the existing infrastructure is forgotten. It may be linked to the "christmas tsunami syndrome", where certain causes get traction because they foster an idea of western enlightenment projects cleaning up and/or "helping" the South. This isn't even a critique of Brothels per se, but rather an invitation to probe the audience environment in which all projects operate. DRIK has had many western visitors come to study its work. Does this sort of reverse knowledge transfer work well, or is there some validity to the "rescue" critique?

Shahidul: Briski actually spent time with DRIK's Out of Focus project in Dhaka, which has been teaching working class children photography since 1994. Interestingly, “Kids with Cameras” was the original name of our Out of Focus group, and that also became the name of the organization Briski founded -- but perhaps that's a coincidence. Suvendu Chatterjee, the director of our India branch, has been working with Sonagachi activists for a long time and I am told that he was the one who introduced Zana to the brothel. The Sonagachi children had many tutors over time, including [director/co-founder of Contact Press Images] Robert Pledge and children from Out of Focus. Of course, Zana had spent far more time than the rest of us with those children. However, there were many contributions from many sources which I believe did not make it into the film. I find that problematic, particularly in a project that is about community building. From my own conversations with the Sonagachi women, they want rights, not rescue.

As for the numerous western visitors to DRIK, I welcome them. While it is true that Drik is not a funded organization, we have worked with and received support from many organizations. Our biggest support base has been our many friends, inside and outside Bangladesh. Besides, if we talk of being a transparent organization, we can hardly turn around and shield ourselves from curious eyes.

Naeem: There is an iconoclastic orientation in your work. You documented the outre, diamond-studded wealth of Prince Musa, the Adom Bepari or human exporter who makes millions sending poor Bangla migrant labor to the Middle East. You also have a habit of catching the powerful in unguarded moments: Prime Minister Zia surrounded by sycophants, ex-dictator Ershad enjoying a wedding feast after getting out of jail, former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif entourage-less at an airport. You also clashed with both the Dutch and French embassies for some strange dress code that didn't allow you to attend a formal dinner wearing sandals. How do these provocations fit with political re-orientation for our icon-blinded politics? How do today's characters compare with the founding heroes/villains: the Caesar figure of Sheikh Mujib, the tragic-romantic Maoist guerilla leader Shiraj Sikder, the secretly excuted crippled freedom fighter Colonel Taher, the hodgepodge of Islamo-Communism of Bhashani, etc. Compared to those flawed but colorful characters, today's political butcher house seems so debased that the punk ethic of "kill your idols" doesn't even seem necessary. Even satire is irrelevant for leaders who are already self-made caricatures.

Shahidul: I was young and never met [independence movement leader] Sheikh Mujib personally, though I was there for the historic 1971 rally and was moved by his speech. I suppose I’ve never been awed by these icons, and have been more observant of their human attributes. Part of our condition is we deify or vilify our political figures, losing the opportunity to sift out the good and build anew. Godfathers support such idolatry as it is essential for their survival. I must admit some pleasure from bringing down these deities a peg or two. Maintaining such a position is not easy in Bangladesh. Even after thirty five years we haven’t been able to move away from the Zia or Mujib dynasties.

Naeem: DRIK has always maintained the difficult position of not being dependent on donor money but surviving instead through your own commercial assignments. You also have a honorable commitment to internal wage equity, so that your salary is only slightly higher than the entry-level employee. But some of the photographers you train eventually leave to take higher-paying jobs with NGOs and foreign donor agencies. What are your thoughts about this dynamic?

Shahidul: Being financially independent is essential for the credibility of a media organization. But we do take on contractual work, some of which is derived from grants. From a donor perspective, “partnership” can be simply a pretty word to use. And consultants and machinery continue to be tied to sources of funds. So donors assume a subservience in any partnership they enter into. The USIS [United States Information Service] reminded us that they would never work with us since we opposed Clinton’s visit to Bangladesh. Similarly, the British Council reminded us that Banglaright’s (banglarights.net) opposition to the invasion of Iraq would jeopardise future projects. They would never demonstrate such arrogance in their own countries (and have learnt never to try it again with DRIK). We know that we are white-listed by many donor organizations and will never get work from them, but take that as an indicator of our success.

Our salary structure does cause problems, and things like our equal bonus policy is not always welcomed by those in higher ranks, and yes, we do lose people to NGOs and donor agencies, which is not a bad thing. What disappoints me is when bright energetic youngsters with spark get head hunted by the donors and turned into well paid clerks who do the donkeywork for their western counterparts.

Naeem: Some people whose work has been interesting me recently are Dawolu Jabari Anderson (Otabenga Jones & Associates), Temporary Services (Prisoner's Inventions), Richard De Domenici (Richard De Domenici is Still an Artist), Yara el-Sherbini (How To Make a Carpet Bomb), Sandy Abdallah Kaltenborn (Kanak Attac), and Valentin Manz (Vision Machine). I am curious to know whose work you are tracking at this moment?

Shahidul: Pedro Meyer (zonezero.com), Tyng-Ruey Chuang and Shunling Chen (Open Source Software Foundry), Steven Gan and Premesh Chandran (malaysiakini.com), Martin Chautari Group (Nepal), Marcelo Brodsky (Buena Memoria), and Tehelka.com.

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